Acadiana Business

IDB approves Ambassador Town Center PILOT

by Walter Pierce

The Ambassador Town Center plan, as presented Tuesday afternoon to the Industrial Development Board

The Industrial Development Board unanimously approved a plan Tuesday afternoon to fund just under $11.5 million in infrastructure costs for Ambassador Town Center, the $95 million, 58-acre development anchored by Costco Wholesale and Dick's Sporting Goods near the Ambassador Caffery-Kaliste Saloom Road intersection.

Like virtually all public meetings in Lafayette where taxes are discussed, the roughly 1.5-hour gathering proved to be a partisan affair, with residents and elected officials speaking on behalf of and against a project that will divert property taxes generated by the development toward paying off bonds issued to fund the infrastructure. Construction on the project is expected to begin in November with completion by October of next year.

The development is a joint venture between Covington-based Stirling Properties and Acadiana Mall owner CBL & Associates Properties of Chattanooga, Tenn. Stirling's Ryan Pécot gave a PowerPoint presentation to the board detailing the plan, which he said will generate up to 2,300 construction jobs and more than 1,000 permanent jobs.

Lafayette resident Simon Mahan, a clean-energy consultant, displays his
Costco membership card as he addresses the IDB in favor of the PILOT
funding mechanism; Mahan and his family currently shop at the
Baton Rouge Costco. At left is Lafayette City-Parish Councilman
William Theriot, who spoke out against the PILOT.

"Awesome day for Lafayette," a jubilant Pécot said after the meeting. "Let's get progressive - let's stay progressive. We like the top rankings; we like being best at this and that and the other. This is the kind of project with the foresight that allows that to continue."

In the intervening months between now and the start of construction in November, IDB will take title to the property (currently owned by the Boustany family) and issue bonds to cover construction of surrounding infrastructure, notably a new road running parallel with Ambassador between Kaliste Saloom and Frem Boustany Drive with a goal of eventually connecting to Verot School Road, but also connector roads within the development. Citing a state Department of Transportation study, Pécot said the new roadways - a principal carrot for supporters of the plan - is expected to reduce traffic congestion at one of the busiest corridors in the city.

The way the PILOT is designed, property owners in Ambassador Town Center will still pay property taxes, but that money will be diverted away from the usual beneficiaries such as the sheriff's office and the school board to pay off the infrastructure debt. When the debt is paid off, the title will be transferred to the developers and any of the major tenants that own their sites. And as soon as the 450,000-square-foot development is completed sometime in 2015, it will begin generating millions of dollars annually in sales taxes.

Citing what he characterized as "an ultra conservative" estimate - knocking 15 percent off a reasonable estimate - Pécot said Ambassador Town Center will generate about $18.2 million in sales taxes annually, with half going to the state and the other half divided equally between Lafayette Consolidated Government and the Lafayette Parish School System.

Lafayette Parish Assessor Conrad Comeaux, right, addresses the board in
opposition to the plan, calling it "a dangerous precedent" that will
encourage future developers to seek similar public assistance.

The small conference room at the Lafayette Economic Development Authority office at UL's Research Park was packed to capacity, with about 40 members of the public and elected officials in attendance. Many weighed in on the project, both for and against. City-Parish President Joey Durel spoke in favor of the PILOT, reiterating that PILOTS are countenanced by state law and that Lafayette must use them to remain competitive - similar to what he said at a May 27 council meeting during which City-Parish Council approved by a 6-3 vote a resolution approving the plan. (The council had no say in whether the IDB can pursue the project; it was only asked to offer its blessing.)

Lafayette Parish Assessor Conrad Comeaux also spoke to the board, joining City-Parish Councilman William Theriot in speaking against the plan. Comeaux called the PILOT a "dangerous precedent" and asked the board rhetorically "what are the rules of the game?" - a reference to a common theme among opponents of the PILOT: that it creates an uneven playing field and favors some developers over others.

The deal, however, may not be out of the proverbial woods yet: Lafayette businessman and newspaper publisher Ron Gomez, an outspoken opponent of the plan, has vowed to file suit to block the plan.

For details on the plan, with its many pros and cons, read ABiz's June 18 cover story, "Tool Time." (Please note, the story was published before these latest details emerged so some of the costs, job creation projections and tax benefits may vary.)